Monkeys and a Straw Man*

Saturday dawned bright and sunny and warm; the forecast equally so for our long day outing to Nagano. Not even Tokyo Station on a Saturday morning could dampen our enthusiasm. The station is simply crazy; if you aren’t moving visibly and predictably, there is a good chance you’ll never catch your train. Or perhaps not catch any train.

JF and I deftly maneuvered our way through the station and to a market for breakfast provisions, then politely queued with other travelers on the platform for our Shinkansen. The formality of the housekeeping staff bowing when a train arrives or departs is artistry; the expediency with which the trains are prepared for new passengers is impressive.

Some 75-ish minutes later we arrived at Nagano Station. Having completely committed to memory (and copied to my iPhone files for backup) the thoughtful blogging of a traveler who shared step-by-step instructions, with photos, on how to connect to the Jigokudani Monkey Park bus, we were prepared and had our “Snow Monkey Day Pass” purchased, with even a little time to browse the excellent gourmet market in the station before boarding.

One travel blogger noted the “steep” initial incline from the bus stop to the entrance to the park, so we were on the lookout. I report that, “steep” is a matter of opinion.

Soon enough, snow monkeys!  We felt like aspiring Jane Goodall’s, observing the Japanese Macaque in its native habitat. Or was it the other way around–were we the primates being observed?  New moms with their spring babies and that exhausted look on their faces (haven’t we all felt that way at some point?) Monkeys sunning themselves by the onsen and on the sun-kissed rocks, the day too warm for a dip in the hot sulfur spring. Alpha males and cute little monkey bums! Signs everywhere requesting that visitors not get too near the monkeys. But, baby monkeys were scrambling under our feet!

The Japanese Serow even made an appearance in this wild kingdom; its ninja deer-goat-antelope appearance quite extraordinary.

After we had convinced ourselves that we had sufficient photos, and more importantly, had kept one another from tucking a fluffy baby monkey into our totes did we leave the monkey park. Along the way is an onsen for humans, and we happened by just as a male Homo sapiens stepped outside of his private onsen wearing nothing but the clothes he was born in to snap a picture of the beautiful scenery. Quite the wild kingdom indeed!

“The Farmhouse,” a restaurant outside of the park was the Japanese equivalent of the Austrian Alm or Hütte: a cheery and welcoming place offering comfort food and local beer after a long hike; in our case, no hiking, just the enjoyment of the weekend set menu of curry and a “Snow Monkey IPA,” and with just enough time afterward to catch the hourly bus to the station.

Dinner was once again prepared foods from the upscale market near the apartment building, enjoyed on the balcony overlooking Tokyo Bay while going over our outing to Yokohama the following day. JF’s neighbors (Straw Man*, his wife and their 2 year-old “prodigy”) were invited to join us, as they had visited several times (JF and her husband had not yet visited) and “totally knew” the “best Dim Sum place” (Straw Man being a self-purported “foodie”) as well as the “perfect” route in order for me to see the requested sights (the Ramen Museum and the marine sea park). You might read into this that the day did not go quite as planned, and you would be correct.

Yokohama was once a small fishing village during the Edo period. Then along came Commander Perry to “suggest” (he brought his fleet of American warships as a calling card) that Japan end its policy of national seclusion by opening its ports to trade. Next followed Western fashion, English-language newspapers, and of course, three Starbucks. Now the city is Japan’s fourth largest and offers a day’s worth of history and fun including Chinatown, the largest in Asia; a Ramen Museum, where one can sample variations of the noteworthy noodle from around the country; and a marine sea park offering a glimpse of ocean life in the waters surrounding Japan. 

The Chinese established a Chinatown more than 150 years ago in Yokohama, making it the largest across Asia; and touring it was the highlight activity on the itinerary. Richly decorated gates marked the entrances. Queues for Dim Sum stretched along the sidewalk, no one complaining about standing in the spring sunshine to wait for a table. Colorful streets with colorful stores beckoned. In nearby Yamashita Park along the waterfront people walked with their children, both canine and human, through the impeccable grounds filled with the most well-behaved flowers. And all around, more cherry blossoms. 

Not what you might think. This is an advertisement for non-alcoholic wine.

This reads like a perfect day, doesn’t it? (*In reality, it was suspicion at first introduction on my part; and I privately dubbed the neighbor, “Straw Man” because he sucked the fun out of my day.) For someone who reportedly had visited Yokohama “many” times, he had never heard of the marine sea park. And instead of touring the Ramen Museum, he had devised a walking tour of some decommissioned ocean liner and two former port warehouses that are now overcrowded, chicy-mhicy shopping and dining venues; and then dragged us two kilometers at the end of the day to see a North Korean rusty scupper (that we couldn’t see anyway because the site was closed.) But I don’t want to give everything away about my mostly non-fun day…

After what was truly mediocre Dim Sum I deliberately invented ways to avoid doing anything on his agenda. While the group followed him onto old boats and into crowded shopping centers, I declined cheerily, saying that my camera was begging for more waterfront/gardens/cherry blossom snaps, but that I would certainly meet everyone afterward. And that is what I did, because, if there wasn’t going to be Ramen and sea animals,  should not a blue sky, sunny day wandering exquisite gardens and a beautiful waterfront hands-down top window-shopping?

On the train home Straw Man suggested a pub serving “the best” American food for dinner, and thankfully JF whispered to me, “There’s a great little soup dumpling place nearby. Do you want to go?” We shared velvety transparent dumplings filled with truffles and ground pork; glass-thin shrimp dumplings, and a few laughs before calling our day to an end.